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Summary:

The heroes of Anthony E. Zuiker’s “digi-novel” Level 26: Dark Origins, in bookstores today, face off against the most grotesque serial killers known to man. Zuiker, meanwhile, has a less malevolent but more complex nemesis in real life — the user experience. For it’s one thing […]

The heroes of Anthony E. Zuiker’s “digi-novel” Level 26: Dark Origins, in bookstores today, face off against the most grotesque serial killers known to man. Zuiker, meanwhile, has a less malevolent but more complex nemesis in real life — the user experience. For it’s one thing to create a hit TV series, but an entirely new genre of storytelling? Definitely another.

The Level 26 experience consists of a 400-page hardback book containing codes that, once you log into level26.com, you can use to watch “cyberbridge” video installments that dramatize in-between moments. The web site, built by EQAL, offers further information about real crimes on top of a discussion forum and other interactivity. So taken together, how does it all add up?

Well, the book component (co-written by Duane Swierczynski) doesn’t skimp on the Saw-esque suspense and gore as jaded-as-hell “crime scene tactician” Steve Dark attempts to hunt down, once and for all, the notorious serial killer Sqweegel. In addition to the dubious choices in character names, Dark doesn’t agree to sign onto the case until more than halfway into the book, and the over-the-top effort to create murderous acts worthy of Sqweegel’s alleged monstrosity offer more shock value than genuine horror. Otherwise it’s a competently written crime novel with a few decent twists and turns.

The video portion, which as Chris reported from Comic-Con was shot for $200,000 out of the book’s $1 million advance, is well-produced and sufficiently ominous. However, the acting is somewhat hit or miss. While contortionist Daniel Browning Smith brings an inhuman edge to Sqweegel, and Michael Ironside is effortlessly badass as Riggins, Daniel Buran as Steve Dark seems to confuse “dark and tortured” with “laconic and mopey.”

There are also some odd glitches between the novel and the cyberbridges. In the third short, for example, Riggins complains about having one ex-wife and three kids who don’t care about him, while the book more than once notes that he has three ex-wives and two kids. A minor detail, but the sort of thing that creates notable disharmony in this kind of experience.

Meanwhile, the glue of the concept — the web site — features a clean design and no shortage of content. I couldn’t immediately locate a complete listing of how many people had joined the site so far, but crime blogger Kristine Huntley, who’s the network’s equivalent to MySpace’s Tom and contributes true crime blogs to the site as well, had 790 friends as of Monday night.

But what does all of that mean for the consumer experience? Speaking from my own perspective, I started reading Level 26 while sitting outside, and thus was unable to immediately watch the “cyberbridges,” instead experiencing the novel as someone like, say, my grandmother (an avid reader of crime fiction and a relative computer illiterate) might.

When I finished the book, I was inside, sitting mere feet away from my laptop in a comfortable armchair. Despite my proximity to the Internet, though, it was the rare occasion that I came upon a cyberbridge and felt truly compelled to get up, log into the web site, and watch it — especially when I knew that the information contained would be encapsulated down the line. It had nothing to do with the quality of the cyberbridges: I was simply enjoying reading a book in a comfy chair and didn’t feel like moving.

Then again, when it comes to reading my focus is pretty good, and the Level 26 approach does reward those with short attention spans, including Zuiker himself. From a 2008 Variety article that goes into detail about the project:

Zuiker came up with the idea when he set out to write a crime novel and realized he had problems with the traditional format. “I personally don’t have the attention economy to read a 250-page crime novel from start to finish,” he said. “I realized that the way I’d like to consume a novel is to be rewarded every couple of chapters by seeing something visual that enhances the narrative.”

From that perspective, the concept works, and in the eternal struggle to find balance between the various components of a multiplatform storytelling experience, I think Zuiker has hit a nice balance, especially by prioritizing the novel (aka the one guaranteed revenue stream for the project) over the other elements.

And it’s a format that may see more success in the coming years, especially if the Kindle and similar devices take off as predicted, and the other planned books in the franchise (the first due out in 2010) see the light of day. Because the biggest obstacle Level 26 will always face is the relative distance between the book and the computer.

  1. Completely agree. The standard for a good novel is that you can’t put it down. As far as the transmedia experience between novel and video, shouldn’t the video drive the audience to the novel and not the other way around? On the other hand this idea simply may be ahead of it’s time as it seems like it was made for a Kindle type reader with expanded features.

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  2. There is another aspect to this which I have brought up with EQAL in the past, but, as usual, didn’t get a clear answer on: How long does the website stay up?

    I have, within two meters reach, several books which were written 10, 20, some probably thirty years ago, all in perfectly readable and enjoyable condition. When I read my mother’s copy of All the President’s Men, the book was a good 20 years old, and there was still no difference to the time she read it.

    EQAL had totally overhauled LG15′s site after only two years, freezing, pushing aside and neglecting the original one, and now, after one year with the new site, they’re actively planning of the next overhaul, with the same treatment of the old content. Under that aspect, and going by sheer probability and knowledge of the speed with which the internet changes and evolves, if I go to a yard sale in 10 years and pick up Dark Origins, how likely is it that the cyberbridges will still work?

    A book is a book. It’s self-contained, needs no power, and, if treated right, lasts for centuries. The cyberbridges need servers, these servers need power, they need connectivity, the readers need compatible clients, and, ultimately, the actual video files have to be compatible with the players of the era. (Ever tried playing a VHS video on a DVD player?)

    The concept of Level 26 is nice. It’s certainly creative. But it suffers from more than the fact that the reader can’t be arsed to get up. It suffers from the fact that, for the reader, a whole lot of technological conditions need to be true in order to watch the cyberbridges which, in only a few years, might not be true anymore.

    Zuiker and EQAL have paired a technology which has proven itself to be timeless with technology which will be outdated by the end of next decade at the very latest. As such, in my opinion, it is unlikely “cyberbridges” will ever be more than a gimmick. They might spark interest on release of a novel, but ultimately, only the novel itself will be important in the long run – because it’s the only part of the package which will survive time.

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    1. Really interesting points you make there! I suppose it’s a question of where digital books evolve. An iPhone app is apparently due out next month, for example, which will combine the book with the cyberbridges all in one. And that’s a whole different situation when it comes to archival.

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      1. While that is certainly a better packaging of the concept, imo, it amplifies the problem.
        The iPhone, so far, has gotten one new version a year. Mobile phones in general only have a few years of lifespan before they’re obsolete.

        How long until said iPhone App is incompatible with the iPhone of the day?

        Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have something against the concept as a whole. It’s a creative way to combine old and new forms of entertainment. I just think the packaging isn’t thought through so far.

        One option that, imo, would be better suited would be video directly embedded into the books, for example with an advanced version of this technology: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8211209.stm

        But that, of course, would go against the true motive of all of this – engaging the readers to build a community, in order to establish a franchise that sells more books >_>

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  3. I think another interesting point to add to the discussion (since we’re on NewTeeVee) is the video price tag: $200,000. Whether that investment works or not, it is a significant amount. At a time when the few places who are funding non-celebrity-driven original web content are making offers of a couple of thousand dollars per episode, these guys saw value in their web video and put some real money into it. I’d be curious to know the total amount of this content (how many minutes of content did that $200k buy?).

    Personally, I admire the investment. I don’t own the book, so I can’t watch any of the cyberbridges. But this article does make me curious, perhaps even curious enough to buy the book…

    Hey – maybe there’s a reason for all the web video after all ;-)

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    1. Hey, David — in answer to your question, there are 18 full episodes ranging from 3-5 minutes, with two 1 minute text message videos as well. Averaged and multiplied, that’s within the range of 70-80 minutes of content, equivalent to a feature film.

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      1. A very very short feature film, I should specify. :)

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  4. any way you look at it, it’s better than just a book. hat is off.

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  5. [...] needing the unlock codes from the novel, jumps around too much to follow independently. And some have noted that the process of moving from physical novel to laptop screen can be a bit tedious. Curiously, [...]

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  6. I’m listening to the book in bed. Unless I stop to write down codes or get up and go to the computer (which I don’t) and enter them I may not remember them all in the morning. Is there a list of all the codes somewhere?

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  7. [...] that would unlock the ‘cyber-bridge’ episodes, a process that even web video junkies found tedious. Though coining a new term with their “digi-novel,” the actual experience was still [...]

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  8. [...] show. It’s a tightly paced ride, and the acting — especially Michael Ironside (in his second web video project this year) as a hard-edged police chief with a vested interest in Neal’s well-being — is [...]

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  9. [...] show. It’s a tightly paced ride, and the acting — especially Michael Ironside (in his second web video project this year) as a hard-edged police chief with a vested interest in Neal’s well-being — is [...]

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  10. [...] has taken on since redirecting its focus away from scripted programming less than a year ago: from helping to create a transmedia serial killer narrative to giving Top Chef contestants a space of their own. Exactly how profitable has EQAL’s move [...]

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